Letters to Ray Bradbury
by Joelle Renstrom
Dear Ray Bradbury:
You are my hero.
The only other person I’ve ever said that to is my dad.
Dear Ray Bradbury:
I’ve wanted to write you a letter for a long time. I’m a teacher and
I almost had my class write you letters when we were reading The Martian Chronicles. There are a
few Douglas Spauldings in my class. A couple Clarices. They’d have talked
your ear off. The furious scratch of their pencils would have left little
holes in the paper.
Most of them would have expressed admiration for your prophetic
insights about the paranoias, preoccupations, and prejudices of society.
You’ve blown their minds with your prescience about trigger-happiness, the
addiction of colonization, xenophobia, cultural intolerance, laziness,
loneliness, our increasing tendency to invent our own realities when we want
something badly enough, and the fact that we’d sell hotdogs on Mars if there
were money in it.
My kids are too young to understand this, but somehow they do, and
they would have written to you about it: you have your finger on the dark
pulse of humanity, yet you spend far more time exploring and being fascinated
by it than you do chastising or worrying. You see the ugliness, but you still
believe in and love people. This means we can believe you. You’re not here to
fool us—you’re here to open us up. We all want to know what you know, what
gives you insight and optimism at the same time, so we’ll go wherever you
They’d have asked you questions. What do you think about Pluto
getting demoted? Have you ever been visited by aliens? How might America
implement the happy triangle of art, science, and religion that you imagine
on Mars? Do you believe in time travel? Do you believe in God?
One or two of them would have described to you in detail their new
tennis shoes. They would have wriggled their toes and wished they could run
and write at the same time.
Maybe I’m projecting. Maybe I’m thinking about what I would have said
if I’d written you a letter.
Dear Ray Bradbury:
My students, who are twelve to fourteen years old, read The Martian Chronicles a few weeks
ago. What a joy it was, in the dreary Michigan February, to pull out this
book and give them the best kind of homework.
I had them define science fiction. Then I promised them their
definitions would change after they read your book.
“Whoa!” they all said.
“This book is not what I expected,” they said.
“It’s about people!”
They debated Spender’s guilt with all the seriousness of greenhorn
lawyers. In an attempt to explain the encounter in “Night Meeting,” they
invented theories of how time works on Mars. They created Martian masks, wore
them, and became powerful. They mourned the realization that one of the few
qualities that separate humans from animals or other sentient races is our
use of guns. “Usher II” drove them mad with delight; one student said that
the “Investigator of Moral Climates” made him think of our administration
ruling by “red tape and fear.” My heart and mind constantly turned cartwheels
when we talked about your book.
We examined the Martian purpose of life. “Why live? Life was its own
answer. Life was the propagation of more life and the living of as good a
life as possible. Life was now good and needed no arguments.”
“This thing is good,” became a class catch phrase.
We marveled at your writing (“I’m learning so much new vocabulary!
‘Rococo’ is totally my new favorite word!”), your imagination, your vision.
When we got to “There Will Come Soft Rains,” one shiny-eyed student raised
her hand and said, “That house was more human than any other character in the
book.” They got that beautiful hurt in them when the house died. And they
This is how I know my students have souls.
This is why I wanted to write you a letter.
Dear Ray Bradbury:
I taught synesthesia to my students today. I tied it in with The Martian Chronicles’ themes about aesthetics and psychic
evolution. I brought in Ken Croswell’s book on Mars, with mind-blowing
high-definition photographs that give palpable texture to Mars’ surface; ice
floes look like designs drawn in mercury, clouds are crowds of bubbles. One
could read those pictures like Braille.
In the book there’s a close-up of Phobos orbiting Mars. Phobos looks
like a dumpling with its side pinched down, like a knobby fist. I can’t look
at it without getting a lump in my throat—it is the most forlorn thing I’ve
ever seen. It reminds me of a line from The
Martian Chronicles—how Earth looks
like a “lonely baseball” from out in space.
I brought in some IDM (intelligent dance music) and ambient
sounds--Autechre, Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada--you know, the stuff
associated either implicitly or explicitly with alien landscapes. They
listened to the music and paged through the book, tracing the shapes,
sensations moving from ears to fingers to eyes to mind. They drew and wrote
about how they thought Mars would look and smell and feel.
For long stretches of time they sat with their eyes shut, listening
to the music. “This song is so…purple,” someone would say.
“Yeah!” someone else would say. “I hear purple
“This song feels like one of those stress balls
that you can smoosh in your hand.”
“I smell fireworks!”
“This thing is good,” someone said.
We all agreed that our class on synesthesia was, per your book, a
"Martian" experience. The ability to appreciate the mixing of senses
was one of the ways the Martians in your book were more evolved than the
humans. Someone said that next time, we should invite you. What do you say,
Mr. Bradbury? Would you like to hang out with my class and draw music?
Dear Ray Bradbury:
My students recently read an essay called “How the Lawyers Stole
Winter,” by Christopher Daly. The piece is about how much times have changed,
especially for kids. Daly reminisces about skating on a pond as a kid and
bemoans the fact that kids nowadays aren’t allowed to—there are fences,
danger signs and parents too scared to let their kids outside, much less onto
a frozen lake.
My students talked about how none of them play outside very much. The
times when all the neighbor kids congregated on someone’s lawn for a game of
hide-and-go-seek are over. It’s dangerous out there, so the parents keep
their children in, which only makes it more dangerous.
My students talked about the amount of time they, their families and
their friends spend online, playing video games, and watching television. No
one’s going to fall through the ice doing that.
They all have cell phones.
Childhood is so different now than it was fifty, thirty or just ten
years ago. It seems as though the Douglas Spaulding moments are fewer and
“It’s not as innocent as it was,” one of my students said.
“It’s not as innocent as it should be,” said another.
I asked if any of them had ever had an invisible friend. Two of them
raised their hands. We talked about what that meant. One of the girls in the
front stared at me, eyes wide. “Oh my gosh,” she said. “It is the death of imagination. Almost
anything we could’ve imagined is online or in a video game, so most people don’t
bother. What would happen if everyone stopped imagining?”
They were silent. Perhaps a little worried, and probably vowing to
themselves that their imaginations would never die. They seemed to be
experiencing nostalgia for the childhood they should have had.
“This thing isn’t good,” someone said.
I looked at their round open faces. They looked innocent, like babes.
The idea that they weren’t—that they couldn’t be—was unspeakably sad for all
“Can we read something uplifting?” one of them asked.
Lucky for them I had just the thing. Before class I’d run copies of
“On the Shoulders of Giants.” There’s nothing like a Bradbury essay to cure
“Comes the Evolution. The survival of that species called Child. The
children, dying of starvation, hungry for ideas that lay all about in this
fabulous land, locked into machines and architecture, struck out on their
own. What did they do?
They walked into
classrooms in Waukesha and Peoria and Neepawa and Cheyenne and Moose Jaw and
Redwood City and placed a gentle bomb on a teacher’s desk. Instead of an
apple if was Asimov.
‘What’s that?’ the
teacher asked, suspiciously.
‘Try it. It’s good
for you,’ said the students.
‘Try it,’ said the
students. ‘Read the first page. If you don’t like it, stop.’ And the clever
students turned and went away.
The teachers (and
the librarians, later) put off reading, kept the book around the house for a
few weeks and then, late one night, tried the first paragraph.
And the bomb
They not only read
the first but the second paragraph, the second and third pages, the fourth
and fifth chapters.
‘My God!’ they
cried, almost in unison, ‘these damned books are about something!’”
My students cheered for children. Their renewed faith in
imagination—in themselves—ran through them, flushing their cheeks.
Their next set of papers was all magic thunder. They invented alien
races (one of which worshipped duct tape), they wrote about six-headed
dragons, their characters spoke in devilish riddles, and their poems morphed
into blank-verse epics.
Covering those papers with exclamation points, checkmarks, and smiley
faces wasn’t enough. I should have put those papers in a time capsule and
buried it in my backyard. Dug it up two years later, five, ten—whenever we
needed it. I’d unearth it one day and read the stories and we would learn
this lesson again, in case we’d forgotten. Or even if we hadn’t.
Dear Ray Bradbury:
I read Zen in the Art of
Writing on a bus to Copenhagen. It was a used copy—the pages were
slightly warm and the corners were a little greasy. They had creases like
wrinkles on a face.
Two thirds of the way through the preface, my heart broke. I cried as
though a dam had busted behind my eyes. I didn’t care who saw me; I was on a
bus ten thousand miles away from anyone or anything I knew. I cried for all
it was worth.
I should probably explain.
It wasn’t just that I was reading your book—it was that I was reading
it at that precise moment, under those exact circumstances. My fairy
godmother might’ve put that book into my hands.
The exact circumstances were these: my dad was dead.
We were supposed to go to Sweden together. I had in my bag a glass
jar filled with his ashes. The last day of my trip I would spread them over
Hedemora, where my grandfather’s grandparents had lived. I got up every
morning and had to figure out how I would say goodbye that day. Each footfall
was a goodbye. Every blink, every yawn, every drop of rain.
I traveled alone. He was the only person who belonged with me on that
trip. Most days I was socked by the one-two-three of awe, sadness and anger.
I’d see something beautiful and seconds later the awe transformed to sadness
that he couldn’t see it. Then I’d get mad, because he should’ve been there.
I got caught in the hamster wheel, spinning around and around the
fact that It Wasn’t Fair. No matter how many times you run around it, no
matter how many angles from which you examine it, that fact never changes. At
least I was going somewhere instead of pacing around my apartment. Working
that fact through my body instead of around it, getting it out of my system.
I tried to be Martian about it. As long as there was awe, I would be
okay. I was halfway around the world; I could give up the habit of
compartmentalizing. I could let myself feel all three emotions at once,
distinctly, despite the discomfort. And maybe then I could grok things more
Exposition is never
easy, is it?
Dear Ray Bradbury:
Your book is a guide to writing, but on the bus to Copenhagen, it
became a guide to living.
I missed my dad all the time, completely and loudly. When I was
submerged in grief, I felt more like myself than I had since he died. Being
his daughter was the most stable identity I had. I kept thinking to myself,
how can this person who’s got her father’s ashes in her bag possibly be me?
During those moments I didn’t know myself as anything other than a
girl who had lost her dad and was desperately trying to find him again. No
other parts of me existed.
After a while, though, other parts of me peeked out. We’re still
here, they’d say. Underneath all this. You’ll see us soon.
Zen in the Art of Writing made the writer part of me, who had been hiding
for over a year, peek out. I was thrilled to see her and gave her permission
to appreciate the surges of emotion, the wash of tears during my rides on public
transportation, the poignancy of me visiting the fatherland alone. The writer
part of me filled notebooks. This is important, she said. This means
something. I should write about this.
The daughter part of me answered, this is sacred. If you’re going to
write about it, write about it. Don’t say you’re going to write about it and
then mope around the house instead.
The writer part of me got sheepish. I know, I know, it said. I won’t
do that. The writer in me remembered one of the last things my dad ever said
to me. I told him that I would dedicate my first book to him and he said,
“Thank you. But you have to finish it first.”
It was during these talks between my daughter self and my writer self
that I read the preface of your book.
Is it gauche to quote you to yourself? Do you think, I know all this
already? Or do you think, damn, I wrote
that. Good for me. It goes without saying that I hope for the latter. You
wrote this, and it’s perfect. Hot damn.
"What, you ask, does writing teach us?
First and foremost, it reminds us that we are alive and that it is a
gift and privilege, not a right. We must earn life once it has been awarded
us. Life asks for rewards back because it has favored us with animation.
So while our art cannot, as we wish it could, save us from wars,
privation, envy, greed, old age, or death, it can revitalize us amidst it
Second, writing is survival. Any art, any good work, of course, is
Not to write, for many of us, is to die.
We must take arms each and every day, perhaps knowing that the battle
cannot be entirely won, but fight we must, if only a gentle bout. The
smallest effort to win means, at the end of each day, a sort of victory.
Remember the pianist who said that if he did not practice every day he would
know, if he did not practice for two days, the critics would know, after
three days, his audiences would know.
A variation of this is true for writers. Not that your style,
whatever that is, would melt out of shape in those few days.
But what would happen is that the world would catch up with and try
to sicken you. If you didn't write every day, the poisons would accumulate
and you would begin to die, or act crazy, or both.
You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.
For writing allows just the proper recipes of truth, life, reality as
you are able to eat, drink and digest without hyperventilating and flopping
like a dead fish in your bed.
I have learned, on my journeys, that if I let a day go by without
writing, I grow uneasy. Two days and I am in tremor. Three and I suspect
lunacy. Four and I might as well be a hog, suffering the flux in a wallow. An
hour's writing is tonic. I'm on my feet, running in circles, and yelling for
a clean pair of spats.
Taking your pinch of arsenic every morn so you can survive to sunset.
Another pinch at sunset so that you can more than survive until dawn.
The micro-arsenic-dose swallowed here prepares you not to be poisoned
and destroyed up ahead.
Work in the midst of life is that dosage. To manipulate life, toss
the bright colored orbs up to mix with the dark ones, blending a variation of
truths. We use the grand and beautiful facts of existence in order to put up
with the horrors that afflict us directly in our families and friends, or
through the newspapers and TV.
The horrors are not to be denied. Who amongst us has not had a
cancer-dead friend? Which family exists where some relative has not been
killed or maimed by the automobile? I know of none. The list is endless and
crushing if we do not creatively oppose it.
Which means writing as cure. Not completely, of course. You never get
over your parents in the hospital or your best love in the grave.
I won't use the word therapy—it's too clean, too sterile. I only say
when death slows others, you must leap to set up your diving board and dive
head first into your typewriter.
I have come up with a new simile to describe myself lately. It can be
Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine
After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces
Now, it's your turn. Jump."
I read this on the bus to Copenhagen and the daughter and writer
parts of me wept together. A thousand times a day I dissolved into pieces
and, with your help, a thousand times a day I attempted my own
April 17, 2008
Dear Ray Bradbury:
When you travel, you can’t escape yourself. You think that because
you're in some other place under some other sun looking at strange people and
things, you won't be inside yourself. But you're more inside yourself than
ever. It’s the landmine. The explosion is loud. It’s messy and painful. It
just so happens that the stuff that lingers inside us is the most terrifying
stuff there is. Your book helped me pull my insides out and gave me the
courage to look at them. I didn’t try to run away from myself. Even when I
was in a museum or a sculpture garden I stared myself in the eye, looking at
and around and through everything that I was without blinking. Not afraid, at
least not of some things, anymore.
There were some tough times, like a four-day stint when it poured
nonstop and all my stuff got soaked. I cried about being soggy and frustrated
and cold and angry. I cried about everything but the rain. I cried about the
carnage scattered in the wake of the landmine. I cried about being alone,
about not having spoken to anyone in three days. I cried about my unfinished
book, about everything in my life I was worried would remain unfinished. I
cried because I wanted my daddy. I cried out of relief, because I had come so
close to combustion from being strong and responsible.
When Dad first got sick, crying felt like ripping my heart out. I
thought that pieces were being extracted that would never find their way back
again. But after a stretch of daily cries, those moments became more
peaceful. Not so wrenching. Sometimes, even beautiful. I realized that
instead of being stoic or “over it,” I'd rather be drenched in Oslo, cursing
and nursing my wet feet, my tears falling as I am held in the very fist of
“If your boy is a poet, horse manure can only mean flowers to him,”
you say, which I love, even though I sometimes turn flowers into horse
manure. I’m a great appreciator of terrible beauty, but I can get stuck and
wallow in the terrible part for a while before I remember to open my eyes. To
travel is to open your eyes again and again for what feels like the first
time. To open them wider, rounder. To see the inside of things, like
To see that indeed, life is its own answer.
Dear Ray Bradbury:
The other night, I joined a science fiction writer’s group. I’ve
never written science fiction in my life, but what the hell, right?
Dear Ray Bradbury:
My students are writing literary research papers now. About half of
them are writing about The Martian
Chronicles. This is the first time I’ve seen students actually excited
about research papers. They want to dig till their hands get dirty. I get to
see the fingerprints.
The student who cried when she read “There Will Come Soft Rains” came
up to me the other day and said, “Please tell me you’ve read Yestermorrow: Obvious Answers to
Impossible Futures.” I confessed I hadn’t. “Oh,” she said, and clapped
her hands. “You will just love it. I can’t wait for you to read it!”
I bought a copy. Used. It’s on my bookshelf now, stretched
horizontally across the tops of your other books. I’m waiting to read it. In
June I’m going to Eastern Europe for a month. Once again, I’m traveling solo.
But not alone.
I’m amassing an arsenal of landmines and secret weapons, horse manure
and cicadas, memories and dreams. And, of course, words.
It’s all about reconstruction.
“…[O]nly by being truly sick can one regain health. Even beasts know
when it is good and proper to throw up. Teach me how to be sick then, in the
right time and place, so that I may again walk in the fields and with the
wise and smiling dogs know enough to chew sweet grass.”
A couple months ago
during a visit to New York, I found myself wandering around in the financial
district trying to peek around tarps to get a look at the construction that consumed
whole blocks. It wasn’t your average makeover—this one would take a long
time. Maybe forever.
The enormity of the
reconstruction turned my stomach. The bulldozers looked exhausted; they’ve spent years
pushing against the immovable. Yet, there’s a lesson in the bulldozer. It
doesn’t look at the mess and think, this will never be fixed. It doesn’t ask
whether the work is worth it. The bulldozer does what it does—it keeps going.
There’s nothing wrong with rebuilding forever. It’s an apt metaphor for life.
Actually, it’s not a metaphor at all.
Joelle Renstrom moved to
Somerville, MA in August, 2008. She teaches writing at Boston University and
literature and writing at the Boston Collegiate Charter School. In 2006, she
received her Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of
British Columbia. Her work has appeared in Carousel, Briarpatch, the
Means, the Allegheny Review, Sycamore Review, The New York Inquirer and
others. A chapbook of her poetry was published by the University of Arkansas
Press. Joelle is the recipient of the CBC Television Jim Burt Prize in
Creative Writing, the Hopwood Award for Poetry and the Virginia Voss Writing
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